Common types of surgery

There are hundreds of different types of surgery used to diagnose, stage and treat cancer. Some of the more common types are outlined in this section – some are minor and are more commonly called procedures, while others are much bigger operations.

For more information about surgery to treat specific types of cancer, refer to our the information about the type of cancer you have.

Surgery to diagnose and stage cancer

For most cancers, abnormal tissue must be removed and examined to make a diagnosis and find out whether the cancer has spread. This process is called staging. Staging can help the doctor recommend the best treatment for you. Some cancers are also given a grade, which describes how abnormal the cancer cells are and how fast they are growing.

The procedure used to diagnose and stage the cancer is called a biopsy, and it may be done under a local or general anaesthetic. The tissue sample is sent to a laboratory for examination under a microscope by a pathologist.

Often a biopsy is done using a thin or hollow needle, which may be guided by an ultrasound, x-ray or CT machine. A surgical biopsy (open biopsy) is done by cutting the body to remove all or part of the tumour. Various surgical tools can be used depending on the part of the body affected.

A biopsy is sometimes done in the doctor’s rooms, but it may also be done in an operating theatre in hospital as day surgery.

Sometimes diagnostic and staging surgery removes all of the cancer, and you don’t need further surgery or treatment. For specific information about staging the type of cancer you have, talk to your medical team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 and ask for a free information booklet.

Types of biopsy

The types of biopsy used to diagnose and stage cancer include:

  • incisional biopsy – part of the tumour is cut out
  • excisional biopsy – the entire tumour is cut out. A margin of healthy tissue is usually removed at the same time
  • core biopsy – a needle is used to remove a thin core of tissue. Sometimes a CT scan or ultrasound is used to guide the needle
  • fine needle aspiration or biopsy – a thin needle is used to remove a sample of fluid and tissue from the tumour
  • skin biopsy – a skin cancer is cut out. The doctor will do an incisional or excisional biopsy of the area. For more information about treating skin cancers, see Understanding Skin Cancer or Understanding Melanoma.
  • endoscopic biopsy/endoscopy – a long, thin, flexible tube with a light and a camera is inserted into the body through a natural opening (e.g. the mouth) or a small cut. The doctor views images of the body on a TV or computer screen and takes a biopsy.
Types of endoscopy
Procedure Part of body tested
Where the tube is inserted
Bronchoscopy Lungs or respiratory tract Mouth or nose
Colonoscopy Colon Anus
Colposcopy Vagina and cervix A speculum is inserted into the vagina to view the organs
Cystoscopy Bladder Urethra
Gastroscopy Stomach and small intestine Mouth
Hysteroscopy Uterus (womb) Vagina
Laparoscopy Stomach, liver, female reproductive organs Small cuts in the abdomen
Laryngoscopy Larynx (voice box) Mouth
Mediastinoscopy Chest Small cut in the lower neck
Pyeloscopy Kidney Urethra
Sigmoidoscopy Colon Anus
Thoracoscopy Lungs Small cut in the chest
Ureteroscopy Ureter Urethra

Surgery to treat cancer

The type of surgery used to treat cancer depends on the location and stage of the cancer and your general health. The table below lists some of the more common types of cancer surgery.

Surgery Cancer type
Colectomy Bowel
Craniotomy Brain
Cystectomy Bladder
Gastrectomy Stomach
Hepatectomy Liver
Hysterectomy Cervical, ovarian, uterine
Laryngectomy Laryngeal (voice box)
Lobectomy Lung
Mastectomy Breast
Nephrectomy Kidney
Oesophagectomy Oesophageal
Orchidectomy Testicular
Pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple’s procedure) Pancreatic
Pneumonectomy Lung
Prostatectomy Prostate
Thyroidectomy Thyroid


Expert content reviewers:

A/Prof Gavin Wright, Director, Surgical Oncology, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Mr Chip Farmer, Colorectal Surgeon, The Alfred Hospital, Cabrini Hospital and The Avenue Hospital, VIC; Carmen Heathcote, Cancer Support Advisor, 13 11 20, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Anna Hrynko, Consumer; Georgie Palmer, Physiotherapist, Physiofit, TAS; Karen Redman, Breast Care Nurse Practitioner, Breast/Endocrine Surgical Oncology, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Dr Shomik Sengupta, Urologist, Sengupta Urology, VIC; Dr Anica Vasic, Head, Pain Management Unit, St George Hospital, NSW.

Talking bubbles icon

Questions about cancer?

Call or email our experienced cancer nurses for information and support.

Contact a cancer nurse